Our shared trauma

It’s time to talk about Post Traumatic Stress. Not mine, I’m fortunate to not suffer from PTS, nor any other individual’s. We need to talk about our collective PTS as a nation.

This is the elephant in the room. We all know it exists, but rarely is it discussed. We see the symptoms every day. Our political gridlock, the anger on social media, the seeming impossibility of constructive debate, our self imposed segregation as a coping mechanism.

Satisfaction is more often derived from tearing someone down than from lifting them up. We scream at each other on planes. We rail against anyone perceived as ‘other’ on social media. We feel justified in passing judgement on total strangers. We distrust everything, unless it conforms to or reinforces our biases.

This all seems to be coming to a boiling point. Civil discourse left long ago. Logos is gone, pathos is running the show.

It’s understandable that emotions run high these days. But our emotions have taken over to a point of destruction.  We are too easily manipulated by third parties who have recognized this. Our emotional fragility has become weaponized while we were patting ourselves on the back for having such strength.

Just like an individual suffering from PTS we, as a united nation, must face some hard truths and move forward with reason guiding our thoughts and actions. So where do we start?

September 11, 2001

We don’t acknowledge it, but the attacks on 9/11 inflicted a mass casualty event upon the nation. Thousands died, many more would continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we all suffered a mental trauma that late summer day that set us on a path of self destruction. A trail of events that spans nearly two full decades now. Never ending wars compounded by a once in a century global economic shock, and disruptive technology that we struggle to adapt to.

America, we’ve stacked bodies higher than the Twin Towers, but the terrorists who sought our downfall are still winning. They’re winning because they knew that the only ones who could rip America apart are ourselves. This fact has been noted by America’s adversaries since WWII. For some reason we don’t grasp this. Always outward looking for the next great power threat, we have been killing America from the inside at a stunning rate.

This only stops and changes if we start to be honest about how 9/11 traumatized the nation. Our population felt a vulnerability not seen since 1814 when the British burned Washington, D.C. Whereas Pearl Harbor galvanized us in a common mission, a clear purpose with a plainly stated end point, 9/11 spurred us onto a jumble of mixed missions that few understood and with no definitive end.

America, we lashed out in October, 2001. We kicked ass. It felt great. Our swagger returned and we knew that we were great again. That didn’t last though, did it? Just as a person suffering from PTS we found quick salve to self medicate. Where a person might reach for booze, Percocet, or a warm gun to get that fix, we as a nation reaffirmed our validity with machine guns, artillery, and sweet precision guided munitions. We tapped that vein with a quick shot of American martial might and validated ourselves.

And just like the individual reaching for a quick, self medicated fix, we collectively came down from our martial high. We looked around wondering why the good times stopped. In our collective paranoia we started looking inward to find the ‘other’. The rotten cancer infecting us from within had to be the reason we fell back down. We drew dividing lines in our society. We labeled those we did not like as unpatriotic or as fascists. Everyone was with us or against us. We found serenity in our black and white world.

But this wasn’t what we needed. We needed to accept that we were all in pain. That all any of us wanted was to live without fear again, to know we would not be hurt and victimized again. In our fear and anger we struck out at the people we once, and maybe still did, love. We did it time and again, going deeper down the rabbit hole of self destructive soothing.

America, we must stop the denial and collective self harm. We need to stop hating ourselves for all our misdeeds and remember how great we have always been. We are still that beautiful city on high. If we allow ourselves to forgive we can mend our way.

Say it with me. September 11, 2001 hurt us like never before, but it will not define us. The attacks of 9/11 are something that happened to us, they are a part of who we are, but we are much more than the scared victims of that day. We will move forward to write our own story on our own terms.

We are a nation with a mission and a responsibility. We are an example of civility, we are a country that values freedom and mutual respect above all else. We are a beacon of hope, shining all around the world.

That is who we really are, even if we don’t always act like it.

So how do we get back to being the country we know we are? It starts with little things. Small corrections to our perceptions, our thoughts, and our actions.

Look at the person you don’t know with affection, not suspicion. See people not as ‘the other’ but as another American. Act with civility that would make our Founders proud. Start by talking to someone who you’d normally ignore. Talk to people with different views than you. Speak to each other calmly, with respect. Seek out these interactions not as a way to change the other person’s mind so that they can be like you, but to find some common ground. Challenge yourself to respect, possibly even like, a person with whom you disagree.

We must rebuild our sense of community without putting conditions on each other. Leave the safety net of self isolation and re-learn to live with each other, accepting our differences. Depart from the mindset of confrontation and march forward with compassion.

Break down your fear and anger and you begin to mend your trauma.

We are only great when we see the greatness of each other. As a nation we share the moral injury of Afghanistan, Iraq, racial strife, our economic inequality, and our ignorance to the shared pain with we all suffer. Put away the anger and exercise empathy. When you feel the knee jerk reaction of wondering just what someone else is, stop yourself.

As you read this you may be looking for subtle hints in my word choice, pointing to some hidden clue as to what I am. He’s a liberal/conservative! Must be a stinking Democrat/Republican. This perverse need to identify and classify everything and everyone has become ingrained. Searching to define everyone is so natural to us that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Is he with me or against me? Will this person hurt me?

Here’s the unmasking. I am an American. I am human being, the same as you.

America, admit it with me. We have a problem but we are strong enough to overcome. We just need some compassion, and we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.

Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

Chingu, Habibi, Friend

After a brief holiday break it’s nice to be back with you. Hope you had a great time whatever you celebrated. My wife and I took off for Nashville for the NYE Jimmy Buffett show. Absolutely fabulous time with a couple of highlights that I wanted to share here. One was getting accosted by religious zealots outside of the Bridgestone Arena, the other was getting to see two friends that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. Before I dive into today’s story I just want to take a moment to express my gratitude to my wife for dealing with my insistence to drive from WNY to Nashville in one day (then go out to see The Dead Deads at the Lipstick Lounge that night) and for her graciousness in meeting my friends whom she did not know.

This was my first time being the subject of someone’s religious protest, so chalk that one up for the record books. I had always seen some ‘End-of-days’ types with their John 3:16 signs at Bills games, but they were friendly. These folks outside of the Buffett show were the real ‘fire and brimstone’ types, vacillating between warnings of going to Hell for our sins and then condescending mockery of how the concert-goers were stupid, immature, and acting like teenagers (because teenagers are all evil of course). It was truly a sight to behold in the single digit temperatures. Add to that a security back-up that had 300 foot long lines taking an hour to get inside and the folks in line were getting agitated.

Now, people can pretty much say what they want to me and I can brush it off. I just shook my head at how these Christians were acting like anything but, and the irony of someone standing in the cold to shout a message nobody cared about which included telling the Parrotheads that they were wasting their lives was a bit much. Almost past the group of Westboro Baptist Church wannabes I was stuck with one of them in front of me, blocking my free movement just enough for me to let an elbow jut out, meeting the pudgy proselytizer in the ribcage. While this gave a measure of quick satisfaction I immediately cursed myself for giving in to the easy temptation. For the record, I was not intoxicated, this was a clear-headed choice. I knew by jabbing my elbow in his ribs that this guy would feel vindicated and righteous. Still, he was blocking the free movement of people peaceably assembling. I stood there wondering which was the greater Constitutional infringement, my elbowing a protester exercising his religious freedom (misguided as it was) or this man’s infringement upon the right of people’s freedom of movement and right to enjoy themselves at a concert? I did know that my reaction was anything but Stoic. Certainly I was not being materially wronged or harmed and should have simply ignored these zealots and continued on my way.

So this was an opportunity to practice some Stoic self control and I failed. Reflecting on this though, I realize that a short time ago I may have been much quicker to throw that ‘bow, or to go even further. That makes me sad and also gives me some satisfaction that sticking with regular therapy sessions and devoting myself to Stoicism has been helping. While I could brood on my failings in controlling my emotions and taking right action I know that the proper thing to do now is to recognize and accept my failing, learn from it, and do better next time. This is important not just for the sake of being a good human, but also to be a credible voice. It’s one thing to sit here writing a lot of lovely things, but if I fail to live up to these words and then fail to change my ways I am nothing but a hypocrite. We all fail, getting back up and doing better, rather than maintaining the status quo, is what separates people. I will do better.

Now, the other topic I want to delve into is a bit of a set up. Journaling at the hotel room in Columbus, OH it became clear that I have only a partial thought. Still, discussing meeting up with old friends has something important to it, and rather than waiting for the thought to mature before writing about it I want to share some thoughts with y’all and let the writing develop the thought.

One thing people often point out as a uniqueness of the military, or at the least one of the benefits of the military, is the strong sense of camaraderie. This is something that I have had a hard time with, but after years of thought I believe my cynicism may have been the result of unfair expectations. I often felt let down by the Army and lied to. In hindsight this was probably as much my own fault as the Army’s. My lack of controlling my emotion added to the feeling and a negative feedback loop of jadedness followed. I never belonged to a unit where it felt like everyone (or even most people) got along. I was never in a unit where people would spend their weekends with the same clowns they spent their duty days with. Korea was an exception, but even there the unit I was in lacked compared to other units on Camp Casey.

The expected camaraderie just didn’t exist. This was difficult to accept, but some years later I think I’ve finally realized what that unique camaraderie really meant. While units were not filled with friends, I left every unit with a couple of really close friends. These were people who did become family to me, people who I would still rush to help at the drop of a hat. Having spent six years in different civilian jobs now, I can say that I’ve never met a friend at any of those jobs who I felt an equally strong bond with. Now, that’s not to say I think everyone I’ve met at my civilian jobs is a schmuck, I’ve met some people that I really like and hang out with from time to time. I wouldn’t drive 1,000 miles to see them or go out of my way on a road trip just to have a meal with them though. And there’s the rub. That camaraderie I wanted so badly did exist, and I couldn’t see it until it was gone.

On our recent trip my friend Remington Vandergriff drove to Nashville from Clarksville to have dinner with us. We spent a few hours sharing drinks, food, and good stories. We got to catch up face to face for the first time since June 2008. We text and call each other frequently, but it still struck us that it had been so many years between hugs. That being said, we picked up right where we left off. We had lived and worked together at the ADA OBC and then in Korea. We travelled to Guam and all over Seoul and Busan together. We had some really great nights out in El Paso. We’ve saved each other from dangerous situations more than once.

Driving back to NY we decided to split the drive over two days. This allowed time to stop on New Year’s Day to visit another friend, Zach Morgan. I met Zach at LDAC in the summer of 2005 and hadn’t seen him since. Again, Zach is a friend I am in fairly frequent communication with. He’s also one of the friends who partnered with me on the Band of Bards project that I wrote about earlier. Our mutual affinity for history and common world view made us fast friends. Driving some backroads just northeast of Louisville, I commented that we could’ve been anywhere in WNY by the looks of things. As big as America is its continuity is a marvel. We arrived at Zach’s home in time for gumbo, sharing dinner with Zach, his wife (who I’d never met), their children, and two of their friends. We were welcomed like family, conversation striking up as if we met for dinner every week. Sadly, it was a sort of dine and dash as we only had a couple hours to spend and another 3 plus hours of driving before reaching Columbus.

As I drove through Ohio I started to think over these reunions. I couldn’t help but wonder how common it was to meet people like Remington and Zach. I could name a half dozen or so others that I met over 5 years in the Army who I could have similar experiences with. The longer I though the more it seemed that this was probably a high number of close friends to make over such a period. I wondered what other people experienced in their first 10 years out of college. There aren’t many people that I went to high school with that I still keep in contact with, let alone consider such close friends. The same for college. So is that just my isolated experience, or can this be confirmed? Did the Army really leave me with truly unique, life-long friendships that people in other industries don’t experience? This is something I’d like to explore some more. This could be one of those civil/military divide aspects that deserves more attention. When people ask why anyone would go into or stay in the military it isn’t uncommon for someone to respond that they did it because of the people they met. Maybe the friends you make in the military really do have a uniqueness to them that is much harder to come by in the civilian world? We’ll only find out by asking.

So here I need your help, True Believer. What’s your take on this? Leave some comments and let’s get a conversation started. I’d really like to get some opinions from both sides of the room on this one.

Until we meet again.

Civil/military relations of The Punisher

There was a great disturbance in my life this past week. As if millions of my hopes cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced by Rian Johnson. When I say this aloud I realize how sad it is, but my disappointment after seeing The Last Jedi on Thursday put me in a real funk for a few days. I’m not going into that here, but I wanted to at least take time to acknowledge this, how silly it is, and to bear some Star Wars fanboy soul.

With that out of the way, I actually want to talk about a different Disney property that has yet to fail me and how it got me thinking about how veterans are portrayed in popular media. By that I mean all sorts of media – TV, radio, movies, the news, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I binged a bit on Marvel’s The Punisher yesterday and it struck me for how it dove into the issue of veterans transitioning out of the military with a uniquely authentic tone. The show is not glossing over the issue, it’s not playing up any stereotype in a superficial manner, and it is not hiding or shrinking from the topic. If you have Netflix, check out the show.

If you’re not familiar with The Punisher, Frank Castle is (in this installment anyway) a former Marine officer. His last assignment was a deployment to Afghanistan in which he was on an off the books team of various special operations types doing a lot of really dirty work (war crimes) under the direction of a CIA spook. As it relates to this blog post, this storyline leaves Frank with a bunch of messed up memories. The show also features two of Frank’s fellow teammates from that deployment, one of whom now runs a private security firm (Blackwater, anyone?) and another who we see running a support group for veterans. The scenes with this support group offer a chance for the show to take on some other supporting characters that do not require much screen time while still being able to introduce a whole gambit of veterans with varying degrees of success in post-military life.

This interests me as it’s not totally necessary to advance the main plot, but it adds a degree of depth to the show for a character who is typically just thought of as a knuckle-dragging, ball of rage, revenge machine with a value system that is so diametrically clear cut it is hard to introduce much subtlety.  Now, I am not a finesse guy. That’s why The Punisher always appealed to me. So getting this sub-plot of ancillary characters to introduce some moral ambiguity is a great shot of complexity. I think that the writers are treating the subject of post-military life with a fair level of seriousness and also present some different views in a way that respects the topic while not playing soft.

One of these chaps is a young post-9/11 vet who is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He is angry, a bit paranoid, vulnerable, and just cannot find meaning out of uniform. He’s also not a caricature of these themes, he presents these real world problems in a very authentic manner. We see Louis fall deeper into himself and withdraw from the group. He is preyed upon by another older vet who attends the support group. This character presents the antagonistic force to the group leader. He openly tells the group that he shows up just to ‘tell the truth’ to the rest of the group. He’s the angry old vet (and we find out later that he’s a stolen valor d-bag) who insists that the country doesn’t care about us, that he was spit on and treated like garbage. He is the self-entitled, ‘your welcome for my service’ kind of guy. This is of note as we do not often see this side presented in media. The ugly vet is a difficult topic to take on for a movie or TV show, with lots of potential backlash. The fact that The Punisher takes this on and does so well with it warrants mention and serious propers.

Louis also got me thinking about myself. I struggled with all of the same things as this character does. Finding purpose was the hardest thing (still is) and the underlying anger that goes along with drifting through life can eat you up. Looking around at the rest of the country, the country that exists outside of the bubbles around military bases, and recognizing that people don’t care about the wars or the military as you do. Feeling betrayed by the fact that their lives go on, blissfully ignorant of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. Resenting your peers for having a leg up on you with their civilian careers even though you’ve done way more impressive and important things. Doubting yourself more and more as you continue to struggle to adjust and just be a normal fucking person. Everyone else has an easy time doing it, why can’t you!?

I remember being out at a local bar one night after finishing up Sebastian Junger’s War. It started out alright and I was enjoying being out and around people. At some point though I realized I was clenching my hands into fists, looking at everyone with a spiteful eye. I hated these people. These pathetic wastes of life who didn’t deserve to be out enjoying themselves while others were still dying on the mountains of Afghanistan. How could they live with theirselves, going on with such trivial and meaningless lives? They didn’t care that Resrepto got wasted. They didn’t care about anything except drinking cheap beer and trying to get laid.

Talk about being full of yourself. I hadn’t been any different than everyone else in that bar not too long ago. There was no justifiable reason for me to feel the way I did that night. Luckily I went outside to get some air, quickly started feeling like a weirdo, and then walked home without incident. This happened only a couple years ago, more than 4 years after separating from the Army. Clearly I still needed more help. I had done some therapy sessions at my local VA clinic but stopped because of changing work schedules. Around the same time that all this happened I got back into regular sessions at an office outside of Buffalo. It’s really hard to see myself having the same reaction today, but to think that some of those feelings aren’t still lingering would be a lie.

The therapy has helped, and I truly think everyone would benefit from checking in with a therapist from time to time. What helped me turn a corner of sorts was stumbling onto Stoicism. I read that Stoic philosophy was a cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so it seemed sensible to learn more about it and how the two related. Well, this was a lightbulb-switching-on kind of moment for me. Stoic teachings overlapped with many of the values I learned in the Army and still cling to. The importance on acting like a good person and putting your philosophy into action, rather than just going through an academic exercise of thinking about what makes a person good, was something that attracted me. Deeds over words. This was something that I understood.

Admittedly, I had been floating in the wind when it came to religion/spirituality. Catholicism and me split ways long ago. While I still have great respect for Franciscan teachings, monotheism just doesn’t do it for me. That obvious conflict left me with a bit of a void. Stoic philosophy helped to fill in the gaps and give me something more tangible to grasp. More lightbulbs went off. I learned that much of that anger was just my own incorrect perception. I learned to accept that other people are not going to care about the same things that I do, or if they do it won’t be to the same extent that I do. It finally dawned on me that this isn’t because those people are of poor moral character, but because they have their own lives with their own worries. I started to sort out these toxic ideas that I had carried with me for years. It’s still a work in progress, but the impact of practicing Stoicism was substantial and swift.

The lesson here is that bridging the civil/military divide helps both the civilian and the veteran. Both parties need that to happen as a way to heal individually, and collectively. We each share in the moral burden of our country’s wars, we each have something to learn from each other. I hope you’re finding value in what I am sharing. This blog is certainly helping me. And, after all, you’re here, and I’m here, so isn’t this really OUR blog?

Until we meet again.

 

How to bridge that civil/military gap, and still have fun

This past Veterans Day I read a great post from War on the Rocks. I mentioned it in an earlier post of mine and wanted to revisit it today. In the piece there is a discussion of how to engage a veteran with great examples of questions to ask, ones to never ask, and some deeper questions to ask once you’re on familiar terms with a veteran. I thought I’d take the questions from this article and give you my answers. My hope is that we get a bit closer and that you can then use this example to go engage with someone in a thoughtful, constructive way. Regardless of what side of the civil/military divide you fall on there is room to grow. Vets need to make themselves available and approachable, civilians need to know that actively engaging us with your curiosity is welcomed and needed.

Questions from the source article will be in italics with my answers in regular text. With that, let’s rap.

“What service were you in? Why did you choose that one?” – I was in the Army from May 2006 – July 2011. Initially I looked at joining the Air Force because I wanted to fly a fighter jet. I caught the aviation bug as a young kid. Top Gun was partly to blame, who didn’t watch that and say to themselves “I wanna kick the tires and light the fires.” What really drove my martial ambitions was my admiration for my Uncle Joe. He was a turret gunner in a B-17 in Europe from 1943-44 and made it through his 25 mission tour of duty when that was still fairly rare. His stories captivated me, his lessons formed me as a young boy. There’s much more I could write about him but that should be saved for another time. Suffice to say, with the influences around me as a boy, it was evident for a long time that I was bound for military service. Unfortunately I had dogshit eyesight. I graduated high school in 2002 and the Air Force at that time did not accept pilots without naturally perfect eyesight. Nothing else in the Air Force really interested me, the Navy was never an option to me, the Marines had appeal but I was told ‘if you wanna be a Jarhead you can do the same thing in the Army and be treated better’ – or something to that effect. So I set my mind to the Army. My high school had JROTC and I participated in that for three years. It was helpful in building some connections to St. Bonaventure University. Some recent graduates had won ROTC scholarships to SBU and laid a good reputation for my high school. So I applied for an ROTC scholarship to SBU, Canisius College, and a couple others. I was offered a 3-year scholarship from Bonas and my path to the Army became pretty clear. In retrospect there were a lot of different paths I had to choose from, including enlisting in the Army should I get no scholarship offers. College just didn’t seem like a possibility otherwise. I’m very fortunate and grateful that I was given the chance to attend St. Bonas. As much as I would love to have flown an F-15, I wouldn’t trade my time as a Bonnie for anything.

“Are you still in the military? What are you doing now? What are your friends doing now?”  – So after I separated from the Army I struggled quite a bit to find another job. Mine is a story all too often seen. After years of being told to not worry about post-Army employment because every company loves to hire vets, especially officers, I found this rang pretty hollow. I had dabbled with some of the JMO headhunters (recruiting firms placing recently separated officers into their first civilian jobs) but found that the options available to me and my BA in history to be doo doo. Lots of jobs on oil rigs, which sounded to me to be a lot like being the Army but with different clothes. So I had to do things on my own, relocating back to WNY, no professional network, tons of skills that local hiring managers didn’t understand, and no way in hell of getting a job near the same level I had just been.

I had earned some GI Bill benefits, so I went back to Bonas. I dove into an MBA program that was out of a remote campus in Hamburg, NY (just outside of Buffalo). Holy shit. Never took a business class before, no math classes in over 5 years, totally unsure of what I was getting into. This program met Friday evenings from 6 – 9 and then Saturday mornings from 9 – 2:30, one class at a time for 5 weeks, 3 classes in a 15 week semester. It felt like being on an education assembly line. This took me three full years to complete. I found a job finally in November 2011, so I worked full time for most of the three years that I was a full time student. First I spent time working for M&T Bank as a credit counselor, which was a very churched up term for debt collector. I did this for nearly two years, during which time I began to hate myself. I started getting physically sick at the same point of my commute each day and started to have my first battles with depression. I left that job when the office relocated and I told my bosses that it was too far of a drive for what I made. They seemed shocked when I told them this on the Friday before the move, even thought I had been telling them this for months. So with bridges thoroughly burned I left the worst professional experience of my life. Luckily I talked my way into a nice job at a local winery within a couple weeks. This was a great job that fit my school schedule, I saw myself as a student first because I knew that was the only way for me to get ahead. I spent about 18 months there, finally graduating (something that shocked me), and then took my current job with the Department of Homeland Security in February 2015. I won’t get into specifics about my job here. I should also probably point out that the views expressed in this blog are my own and in no way represent the US Government or DHS!

As for my friends, they’re doing all sorts of ill shit. Some became lawyers, some are working in the energy industry, some are still serving. That’s a tough one to get into without making this post 5,000 words. If any of you True Believers want to know more about this or have specific questions, leave a comment.

“What inspired you to join?” –  Talked about this a little bit in the first answer. I remember a colonel from Cadet Command coming to speak to us my freshman year at Bonas and he went around the table asking this question. I joked that I might have watched too much G.I. Joe as a kid. He didn’t laugh. Really though I was just always fascinated by all things military. I was certainly taken in by the romance of military service. I hate to paint myself as such a cliche, but really I was just a born sucker for this stuff. As I got older I had this feeling that I was meant to do something important, to not squander life by being average. This feeling still haunts me a bit. I will say that such expectations set me up to be disappointed, to become cynical and jaded very quickly. We can dive deep into that as I write about my time in Korea and the effect of our Long War on morale military-wide.

“What was your job? What was the most rewarding part of doing it?”  – I was an Air Defense Artillery officer. Enlistedmen get an MOS (military occupational specialty) and officers get assigned a branch. Each branch is filled with soldiers assigned to a more specific job within the general branch. It’s like how a private company will have a sales division, marketing, HR, and so on. Within each of those divisions are managers who oversee employees performing different specific jobs.

So as an ADA officer I would be trained to lead both HIMAD and SHORAD units. If you’ve paid attention to what’s going on in Korea you’ve seen the HIMAD stuff, Patriot and THAAD batteries designed to knock out ballistic missiles like the ones North Korea has been testing. The SHORAD stuff has been scaled back to the point that it barely exists. This part of ADA focused on shooting down things like fixed and rotary wing aircraft (planes and helicopters), cruise missiles, and now drones and indirect fire (artillery and mortar shells). The HIMAD stuff is thought to be sexier, and it is far more expensive (or lucrative if you’re Raytheon), so for the last few decades HIMAD grew and SHORAD shrank. This was worrisome to me as I attended my ADA Officer’s Basic Course (OBC). I had no interest in the Patriot stuff, and frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Through an odd stroke of luck I never once set foot in a Patriot unit during those 5 years. Again, I think we’ve found something to expand upon in later posts.

As far as my most rewarding experiences, I’d have to say Korea was the one place that SHORAD assets are still appreciated. This is where I felt I had the greatest purpose and utility out of all my assignments. Also, becoming friends with the Iraqi colonel I was partnered with was pretty great. I can still remember the videos of his kids playing that he shared with me. I still think of him and his family quite often, hoping that they are safe.

“What surprised you the most about being overseas?” – In Korea I was shocked at how safe I felt. The country has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Honestly I always felt safe, even if I was alone, except for when I saw other Americans. I found that by being respectful and learning a few basic words/phrases in Korean like ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘thank you’, a person could get by pretty easily and have no worries. This taught me quite a bit about other cultures. The year I spent in Korea truly transformed me as a person.

As for Kuwait and Iraq, well I fucking hate deserts that’s for sure. Time in Kuwait was limited to deboarding the 747, hopping on a bus, and being transported from one US base to another. I was only there for a couple weeks for standard environmental acclimatization and some extra training before flying into Iraq. My lasting memories of Kuwait are confined to the sight of Kuwait City at night (it looked like an island of electric light in a sea of darkness), the awful smell that hit me as I got off the plane (a mix of jet fumes, hot mess, and general stench), and a really nasty sand storm that I got caught in when I went for a walk to buy a phone calling card.

Iraq was another lesson in cultural appreciation. My job on the BTT put me into daily interaction with Iraqis in a much more intimate setting than most soldiers experienced. Here I confirmed some thoughts that had been scurrying around in my head, defying cognitive capture. This is where I came to know without any doubt in my mind that people are people wherever you go. All we want is security. Physical security, mental security, food security, financial security, and security for our children. What all people simply want is the liberty to go about their lives free from fear, able to do what they please so long as they aren’t causing harm. That description probably fits 90% – 95% of the world’s population. For some reason that doesn’t seem to be a narrative shared by many Americans. I think the collective trauma of 9/11 robbed us of this truth and this vulnerability was seized for financial gain by all manner of bad actors, foreign, but mostly domestic. Whoops, off track again.

“What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you in the military?” –  Well, there was the Stinger missile range in Korea where we nearly blew up a Korean fishing boat. We had to fire the Stingers off of a beach and away from North Korea just to be safe (the range of a Stinger is only a few kilometers). The Korean Coast Guard was assisting us in setting up a perimeter on the water to warn away fishing boats. Well, right after a Stinger was fired some joker decided he was going to go where he wanted to and came buzzing around a cliff. Stingers are heat seeking missiles and the boat was giving off a stronger heat signature than the drone target. From the control tower we watched as the Stinger changed course towards the fishing boat, only turning away at the last second, heading back to the drone target. That was nearly a very ugly international incident. I’m glad the dopey fisherman didn’t get blown away, that would’ve seriously screwed up my weekend plans after getting back from the range.

Oh, there was also a scorpion that we found in a toilet at an aide station in Iraq. We were doing a walk through of some of the facilities of the Border Police Academy and in the bathroom we found this ugly black scorpion trapped in a toilet. This was one of the eastern style toilets that is inset with the floor for you to squat over. The scorpion had fallen in and could not climb out because of the curve of the toilet. This was way more entertaining than it should have been, and the scorpion may or may not have gotten pissed on. The next time we went to the COB I found a poster of deadly insects and animals in the area. Turns out that scorpion was one of the deadliest in the Middle East. And I thought finding a tick in my dick at Fort Knox was bad!

“Was the food as crappy as we hear?” – Another thing I briefly talked about in an earlier post. The worst food I’ve had was in the Army, and some of best food I’ve had was also in the Army. The DFACs at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) were the most impressive I saw anywhere. Steaks and seafood were always available, fresh eggs, fresh baked breads, and even the mythical 32nd flavor of Baskin Robbins were available. It really was obscene.

The other end of that spectrum can be summed up in two words ‘Nerf eggs’. On a late winter training exercise in Korea the ‘eggs’ being served from the field kitchen were so dense that they bounced. I opted to stock up on single serve boxes of Frosted Flakes, my ever present Pop-tarts, and Asian apples. I also ordered the guys in my platoon to all get eggs every morning. We would all go through the chow line and then gather around the hood of my HMMWV to eat and compete to see who could bounce their eggs off the hood the farthest. It was cold, wet, and muddy, but each morning we had some good laughs thanks to the worst eggs ever made.

“What did you do in your free time while you were deployed?” – Here’s something that’ll piss a lot of people off, I had private Internet into my CHU. Thanks to the team we replace in Iraq, every one of us on the team had a private hook up. The last team had swindled a satellite hook up under the pretense of setting up a shared Internet cafe for themselves since they were at a remote location. Being at a remote location no pencil pushing civilian was going to drop in on them to ensure that the cafe was set up as proposed and the privilege was not being abused by setting up individual lines. Of course that’s exactly what they did, and we continued doing this. So while I was living remotely on a weird Iraqi Army base, I had a CHU to myself and my own Internet hook up. I watched The Office a lot, Skyped with my wife, and was able to pretty much keep up with what was going on in the rest of the world. Otherwise it was a bit like college in that we were a fairly close nit group for just being thrown together, and we would just hang out and bust each other’s balls. Except we would be cleaning M-4s and machine guns while doing the ball busting. So kinda like college in Texas.

Alright. That was fun. Some surface scratching there but now you have some greater understanding of my time in the Army. There are a few more questions from the War on the Rocks article that I will save for another time. They’re the ‘advanced’ questions and it seems better to come back to them another time.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my story. Hope you liked it and will continue to come back.

Pax et bonum

Bob Ross as a spiritual guide

Indulge me if you will. This will be a meandering missive, but I promise a few gems (not the Infinity kind). This has been a week full of frustrating news and to counter this I turned to an old friend, Bob Ross. Amazon Prime now streams seasons 10 – 31 of The Joy of Painting, and it really saves my mental health some days – thanks Bezos. Sometimes I just put it on for background noise, Bob’s soft voice never fails to return positive vibes. As a kid I would watch Bob whenever I was home sick, now I make it a regular part of taking care of myself. There is something so pleasing about the sound of a fan brush striking canvas to make happy little trees. Or the sharp scrape of a painting knife scratching in some happy little twigs. All these audio stimuli combined exude calmness, serenity, tranquility.

As I binged on Bob a couple nights ago I was struck by how many of his witticisms, which can seem goofy at first, are very much like the lessons I’ve been learning from my dive into Stoicism. I started jotting down different Bob sayings, ideas, and other lessons to be gleaned from this gentle afro-grandpa. By the time I finished for the night I had 14 separate bulletized notes. For ease of reading I’m putting my notes in quotes to distinguish them from the rest of the post’s content (suck it, grammar). Here. We. Go.

“You need the dark to see the light” – This of course was always in reference to creating contrast in his paintings, but Bob would occasionally point out how this applies to sorrow and happiness. During the life of The Joy of Painting, Bob lost his mother and his wife, yet he kept bringing light to all of us. At times it seems like creating paintings to share and seeing others experience the joy of painting is what kept Bob going. Taking the sorrow and using it to create happiness for others brought light back into Bob’s life. That’s powerful.

“On the canvass you control all. But nowhere else, so don’t stress over what you can’t control” – A major teaching of the Stoics was that to be happy we must recognize what we control, accept what we do not control, and only concern ourselves with that which we have control over. Bob would joke that when he left the studio and went home all he was in charge of was taking out the garbage, but when he painted he had absolute control over that world. Painting provided a medium to channel frustrations with the outside world, to enjoy having control over something so that he could accept the things he did not control. How much more joy would we all have if we all practiced this in our own way? Lately it seems many people are consumed with their anger, often with things outside their control. That is sad and dangerous. What I can do is to refuse to live like that and share these thoughts with you all in hopes of spreading these ideas.

“Give voice to your thoughts – sounds, naming anything, it’s why we write!” – OK, this is slightly disjointed, but hey, it’s my notes! The lesson here is that the quirk Bob had of putting voice to what he was thinking, even down to making his own sound effects or naming inanimate objects, is healthy and spurs our creativity. My wife will often ask me ‘Are the sound effects really necessary?’ Well, yes. Maybe all those hours of watching Bob when I was a kid is what formed this habit in me. Try it out sometime. Being a weirdo is essential to personal freedom. Keeping everything in your head all the time will take a toll on you, share your thoughts and ideas with the world. We all have something to add.

“No mistakes, only happy accidents” – Possibly my favorite Bob-ism. It’s pretty simple and carries so much power. If you screw up, there is always a way to make something positive out of the situation. It can be difficult to see how or what good can come from some of life’s bumps, but there is opportunity for good in every bad situation. This too is strikingly Stoic. The idea that our perception of an event, rather than the event itself, is what is good or bad was often talked about. It is challenging to live this every day, but that’s the point! The more we are able to live out this idea the better person we become.

“Importance & impact of a gentle touch “2 hairs & a whisper”‘ – Some elements of Bob’s painting technique (wet on wet) required a very delicate touch. He would say “2 hairs and a whisper is all you need” to emphasize just how little pressure was needed at times. To me this also speaks to how our own small, seemingly insignificant actions can make a profound impact. We all face adversity in our lives all the time, often not sharing it. Suicide prevention is a hot button issue for veterans, and really the US as a whole. ‘Check your buddy’ is pounded into your head in the military, but really it’s just a good thing for all of us to do all the time. So be kind to each other. You never know when a gentle word or a random phone call will save a life.

“Aggregation of many small things, that on their own are indistinct, make something beautiful” – Bob’s paintings usually looked like a toddler’s scribblings until about half way through. Then, all these weird, ugly smudges and criss-crossing brush strokes started to coalesce into a gorgeous landscape. The jumbled up picture in Bob’s head (he also had a model painting off camera to his right) would develop and give us all something to marvel at. Bob would say we all have that ability, and it’s true. The greater point here is that all of our small actions eventually add up. Make your actions good and just, take care to do the small things right and the big picture will take care of itself before your eyes.

“Caring about all life. Equanimity to all.” – Bob loved nature and would often show off some birds or squirrels that he and his wife would care for until they were ready to go back to the wild. Peapod the Pocket Squirrel was a favorite. Even after being let loose to nature he would return each day to Bob’s house for a visit. I try to emulate this with bird feeders and putting out food for the squirrels in my backyard. Now that winter is setting in here in NY the visits are less frequent. Spring and summer bring so many different creatures to my backyard zoo though, and it’s a great joy to just watch them. It’s a great way to develop compassion and empathy, things I’m sometimes lacking. Each day is a new opportunity to work on this and to live up to the Franciscan ideals of serving all.

“Believe that you can do it and you will” – Bob loved the wet on wet technique for its ease and mass accessibility. He believed anyone could make paintings just like his. Knowing that people still felt intimidated or uncertain, he frequently reminded us all that it is possible and that the first step is to simply believe in ourselves. Attitude is everything, right? Having the confidence that we can succeed is more important than any natural talent. I have struggled with this so much in my transition to civilian life. It’s easy to remember my failings. At one point I counted up 14 different things I had tried and failed at, or just quit, since leaving the Army. It may have taken longer than I wanted, but I’m here writing this blog now. I’m building up towards this goal of writing a book, post by post.

“Spreading joy/goodness is self-reenforcing” – Another concept that has been explored pretty broadly. For as much as this is talked about it’s odd how often we fail to follow through on it. We all know it, when we make someone else happy we also gain some happiness. Certainly something I need to keep in mind and live up to much more.

“All of us need a creative outlet” – Touched on this a bit earlier. Finding a constructive outlet for our emotions is essential. We’re still in the early days of this blog, but I immediately recognized the benefits of getting back to writing. One day I will try painting, when I have the space to dedicate to paint flying everywhere. For now this bit of writing that I am sticking to is helping me to focus my thoughts, get the noise out of my head, feel productive, and make tangible steps towards a big goal. I’m thrilled whenever someone reads my posts or leaves a comment, but first and foremost I’m here for myself because it’s good for my mental health.

“Dissatisfaction with your painting is a blessing. If you ever make a painting you’re completely satisfied with you might as well stop painting because you have nowhere to go if there is no more improvement to be made” – This is one of those needing dark to see the light things. If you achieve perfection, why continue? Don’t be upset at yourself for having shortcomings, look on them as chances to keep improving yourself. Again, we run into that Stoic idea of our perception, rather than the situation, bestowing value. We are human, by nature we suck. Embrace that and find ways to be better. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the meaning of life?

“Don’t be afraid to make big decisions. They can always be altered with some effort” – Bob would reach a point in his paintings where it was time to ‘make a big decision’ or that it was ‘time for your bravery test’. This would mean that he was about to put a large tree in the foreground, or begin to set the peaks of a mountain range. These were essential elements to the painting, pieces that would draw your attention and provide something dramatic to admire. In the world of that canvass, these were life and death decisions, something to terrify the inexperienced painter. Bob’s way of helping us get over the anxiety was to remind us that if something didn’t go as we wanted it to, there were ways of fixing our happy accident. There is always a way to mend what we foul up. It may be difficult, it may take time, but we can always turn the bad into good. So don’t be fearful. Don’t let your anxieties paralyze you into inaction. Make the best decision you can, have faith in yourself to see where you can do better and know that you will.

“Everyone needs friends, even trees” Bob gave everything in his paintings friends. No tree stood alone, not even fence posts were solitary. While we must find the strength to do right within ourselves, we all need support. We all need help and to have good people around us. Humans are social creatures, and while we might not all want tons of friends or to even be around other humans very often, we do need friends. They help us grow through life, they are there when we need support or even just to help us work through a problem. Don’t forget to be a friend, and remember to say “thank you for being a friend.” (You just sang that, didn’t you?)

“If what you’re doing isn’t working change your technique/approach” My last note! Bob would mention, from time to time, that he originally tried to be a traditional painter. The wet on wet technique that he became known for was derided as amateur. It was looked down on by critics because it was easy and for the masses. If art isn’t exclusionary then what’s the point!? Well, the point is to express yourself and to enjoy the practice. Ignoring the critics, Bob embraced the wet on wet technique and found his niche. I think we all encounter this dilemma in our lives. Don’t be afraid to change course, and don’t let yourself be anchored to any dogma. I tried several times to start writing a full length book from start to finish. That never worked for me, for many reasons. I changed up my approach though, and progress is being made.

There you have it. The wisdom I gleaned from a night of bingeing on Bob Ross. I hope you liked it and can see why I view Bob Ross as a spiritual guide in life. If you’re still wondering why I love Bob Ross so much I suggest watching this and this. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of living up to everything I just wrote! I’m certainly glad you joined me today. Bob would end each show by saying “Happy painting, and God bless”, this wouldn’t make sense for me to say. So instead I’ll just steal from another artist I admire and leave you with “Be good and you will be lonesome.”